Fencing 101 with the Cincinnati Fencing Club

For those with limited knowledge of fencing—or knowledge primarily informed by Hollywood and/or the Three Musketeers—here’s some intro-level info to get started.

PHOTOGRAPH PROVIDED BY CINCINNATI FENCING CLUB

Most newbies to the Cincinnati Fencing Club show up because they saw a movie, maybe Star Wars or The Three Musketeers. Years ago, it was The Princess Bride. They’d watch those fighting scenes and think, I wanna play with swords, too. And thus, a budding interest in—or, at least, a mild curiosity about—fencing is born.

Nate Westcott has been fencing for over a quarter century, since his dad got home from work one day and asked, “What do you think of fencing? There’s a club downtown. Want to learn?” Today, his dad teaches a beginners’ class at that club, the Cincinnati Fencing Club, and Westcott has been its president since 2009. He estimates the club has 10 to 15 members, down from its pre-COVID numbers of 25 to 35. They’re a range of ages, but the club is particularly good for young and new fencers.

PHOTOGRAPH PROVIDED BY CINCINNATI FENCING CLUB

“In a sport that can be a little bit elitist in terms of the cost, all we want to do is provide an opportunity to people who want to see what it is, at the lowest price we can possibly give them,” he says.

The club is able to do this thanks to an endowment that lets it operate in perpetuity, Westcott says, which has been an actual lifesaver during the pandemic; without the endowment, the club would not have been able to stay open during lockdown and social distancing requirements, which limited the number of people who could be at the Clifton Recreation Center, the club’s home.

For those with limited knowledge of fencing—or knowledge primarily informed by Hollywood and/or Athos, Porthos, and Aramis—Westcott shares some intro-level info to get started.

Let’s start simply: What’s fencing?

Fencing, Westcott says, is a martial art. Its roots come from military training, though it’s been gamified, similar to karate, where a tournament is done with touch points. A match, for example, requites fencers to make contact—not a kill—to get a point.

Fencing uses three weapons:

  • An épée, a thrusting weapon that’s modeled after a dueling rapier. This is the fencing sword you’d see in The Three Musketeers.
  • A sabre, the only cutting weapon of the three, which is a descendent of a cavalry sabre, or the sword you’d see in Civil War movies.
  • A foil, which is also a thrusting weapon but smaller and lighter than an épée. It doesn’t have an obvious movie-related weapon because it evolved from small swords that were once worn as décor.

PHOTOGRAPH PROVIDED BY CINCINNATI FENCING CLUB

The art of fencing is simply combining seven to 12 unique moves in different ways.

“The first class is going through all the ideas of what you’ll be seeing forever,” Westcott says. “Once you have the first class under your belt, you have all the ideas you need to go forward.” But that’s not to say fencing is simplistic. “I’ve been doing this 26 years and still constantly learning.”

Plus, so much is dependent on the opponent.

What traits make someone a good fencer?

A common trope is to call fencing “physical chess” because fencers can train to turn their weakness against an opponent. Like many other sports, fencers who are tall, strong, and quick have an advantage. Westcott, who is 6 feet tall, says his long arms can be a crutch to rely on because he never had to work around having a shorter reach.

“I have to be careful because it’s hard for me when I have to go against someone taller than I am because I’ve never trained being shorter,” he says. “It happens not infrequently in fencing where the guy you think is gonna win, someone shorter or heavier or older or female comes in, and they’re trained how to use their quote-unquote disadvantage to completely confound their opponent.”

PHOTOGRAPH PROVIDED BY CINCINNATI FENCING CLUB

Fencing is as much a mental game as it is a physical game, in part because it is a solitary sport, Westcott says. He compares it to a soccer goalie, the one person on the team who is off doing their own thing. It requires focus, concentration and will power because there’s no one around to back up a fencer. It’s entirely self-driven.

How young can a fencer start to train?

There’s no age minimum to start fencing, but the Cincinnati Fencing Club starts accepting fencers at 10 years old. Any younger than that and the fencer will need a lot of individual attention, and the club’s student-to-instructor ratio is already low. In early classes, Westcott says, he tries to have two instructors per class. The current beginner’s class has just three students, and the one-to-three instructor-to-student ratio works well.

Admittedly, he’s seen mature 6-year-olds who could handle fencing and some 18-year-olds he wouldn’t trust with a sword. But it comes down to this: “Do you want your child armed, and do you want your child to know how to use that weapon in the household? We’re going to teach them how to hit a thing with a stick.”

He stresses that the first class is all about safety and, for example, not pointing their weapons at people.

“One of the things about the sport I’ve always enjoyed is, it’s a very inclusive sport, and it’s very accessible to a lot of different people,” Westcott says. “I have been absolutely clobbered by girls under the age of 10. I have been clobbered by older folks in their sixties and seventies.” He often invites parents on the bleachers to fence, too. “There’s no age (limit). It’s not like baseball, where you have to start playing as a preteen. You can start fencing at 45 and go to the Olympics if you’re willing to put the energy into it and have a little bit of talent.”

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